Firewatch: The reality of heartbreak

Firewatch, the first game from Campo Santo, released a few weeks back. I like it a lot, that's your review, but I wasn't compelled, upon completion, to talk about the graphics, gameplay or value proposition - but instead - how Firewatch deals with some very human issues. HEAVY spoilers follow, so unless you've finished it, look away now.

 

You have been warned.

Firewatch is a video game about adults having adult conversations about adult things.

Such was the line as Campo Santo were on the media warpath. Naturally many people wilfully misinterpreted this; lots of swearing? Chats about sex? Gratuitous T&A? For many of us, though, our ears pricked up; a game about grown ups and grown up relationships and problems is something sorely lacking from video game discussion. "Adult" in gaming typically means an 18 rating and everything that accompanies that; gore, violence and F bombs.

Firewatch has none of the former, a little of the second and a decent amount of the third - but that's not what makes this adult. Firewatch opens with a story about Henry, your playable character, and about how he meets a vivacious, bubbly woman, Julia, via your choice of terrible chat up line, before embarking on a relationship with her.

During the story you can choose various things; what kind of dog did you guys adopt, how did you respond when Julia told you about a job offer in another state? Adult decisions that many of us will have, or have had, to make in our lives. As this opening progresses Julia's behaviour becomes erratic and she is diagnosed with dementia.

As I sat with my girlfriend playing through this opening I saw the message crawl across the screen before casting a sideways look at her face. She was downbeat, with a heavy looking pair of eyes. Her grandmother has alzheimer's disease, a form of dementia, and I knew that the decisions we would make in the opening from that point would be coloured by that experience.

She was happy for me to take control until that point; but when the decisions needed to be made about how Julia would be cared for I took a step back and let her make them; we had contrasting views. Do you allow Julia the professional help she needs? Or do you take that responsibility on yourself? I re-wrote those two options a number of times to try and hide any bias that I might have, but I still failed. I know, or at least I think I know, what I would do in that situation; but Firewatch was forcing me to face this decision, forcing us to face this decision.

This opening informs your playthrough of Firewatch; a game where you, Henry, escape, both figuratively and literally, to the wilderness to become a fire warden. It's here that you begin your interactions with Delila; your new boss and, over the course of the months of your tenure, your confident and friend. 

Firewatch unfolds around this relationship. You stroll from point to point, investigating things that happen in the game (some well done, others I'm not so sure are quite earned) but the one constant is Delila. Your interaction with her is limited to radio conversations and incorporates one of my favourite mechanics in recent memory. Delila might comment on something; "Are you married?", she might ask, and you have options in your reply. Hardly anything new, but one option is always to let the conversation die by offering no response. A forlorn "Oh, I guess I've lost your signal" might come back as you continue hiking through the game's gorgeous world.

As my girlfriend and I sat through these conversations our two personalities began to show. I wanted to talk, but avoid the topic at hand or quickly turn the conversation back to her, while my girlfriend quickly drew up boundaries with our relationship with Delila. I was piloting this experience though, so it was my rules and my decisions.

Firewatch takes place over about 80 days, a little over two months, and Henry and Delila's friendship continues to develop. They become more colloquial, more friendly and, at times, a little more flirty and suggestive. I know you can offer alternate conversation to her, but a second playthrough would run the risk of showing the seams of the experience - feeling a little less naturalistic as you pursue certain responses from Delila.

As your relationship progresses there are tiny throwbacks to the life you left behind; not least Henry's wedding ring a constant reminder of his heartbreak. Every time you open a supply crate, large boxes filled with occasionally equippable items and often filled with subtle story elements, Henry's left hand grasps the lid, he taps his fingers on it, then opens it; wedding ring in full view. As time passes and you become more and more friendly with Delila, and that painful life becomes a distant memory, Henry takes the ring off.

Over the top of this narrative there are two "events" that occur. The first is the discovery of a couple of teenage girls drinking and leaving mess around the wilderness. You confront them, they insult you, then leave - before being reported missing to the police. The second event, the weaker of the two in many ways, is a mysterious figure who, it appears, is following you, recording your conversations with Delila and building a strange fenced off area. Despite how forced many of the elements of the second half of the game felt to me, the introduction of a third party into Henry and Delila's relationship creates enormous, and fascinating, pressure.

There's the pressure created by their, now recorded, discussions about the missing teenage girls, but there's also a record of everything else. The suggestive comments, the romantic undertones, the personal stories are there, in black and white. Confronted with their words in front of them the tone changes, tempers become frayed and the relationship deteriorates. 

The wilderness around you mirrors that change. The small fires that cropped up and were monitored by the two you have long since gone, in their stead is a forest fire that requires an evacuation of all staff in the area. It's not the most subtle of metaphors, but sets up the final, controversial, moment of Firewatch

The game teases that pay off. It hints at the meeting between Henry and Delilah. That meeting was not fulfilled in my playthrough (and I would suggest, given the criticism online, that it isn't fulfilled at all).

Was I angry? Did I feel like I'd had the wool pulled over my eyes? No. Firewatch is, to bring us full circle, a game about adults, having adult conversations about adult things. Sometimes life doesn't quite work out; and as Henry sits in Delila's tower, looking at Delila's things, having a final conversation with her that the realisation of heartbreak, in all its forms, takes hold. Henry's wife has dementia. Her family despises Henry for his treatment of her. His confident and friend for a crucial part of his life is slipping away and all he has left is that cold wedding ring, sat on his desk, that you can choose to leave behind.

Life isn't easy, there are rough edges and unhappy, unsatisfying endings. Firewatch recognises that, and is a much better game as a result of that.